Spain 2017 – Tour Day 5

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By Susan Mahr

October 9

We had a free morning until 11:30, so people slept in and got to breakfast whenever they wanted. The morning meal is served in the basement; exiting the elevator was like stepping into a cave or grotto with the walls encrusted with small stones in decorative patterns and arches supporting the ceilings. We walked down a long corridor, with one section lined with what looked like small ancient olive oil jars, and on into a large room with a silver tin roof, plastic chairs that looked like crystal, reflective tiles and golden pieces on the walls and columns to make a bright, exotic-looking space without many harsh lights. The food was in a separate room, arranged on two counters on either side of the long, narrow space, with hot dishes of scrambled eggs, bacon, small sausages, mixed vegetables, an assortment of breads and pastries, fresh fruits, and more, along with large urns of fresh orange juice. Coffee was serve yourself from espresso machines that required the insertion of little pre-packaged plastic containers of different types of coffee.

The shops opened around 10:00 so people wandered about the narrow, historic lanes on their own if desired, until it was time to meet for our walking tour at 11:25. We met our guide Jaime in the library at 11:30 who then ushered us out into the streets of the Santa Cruz district where we were staying to learn about the history and culture of Seville, the fourth largest city in Spain with a population of about 700,000. We wandered over to not-so-busy Plaza de las Tres Cruces where Jaime first told us about the economy in southern Spain. Of course tourism is very important, but other industry includes rice production, airplane manufacture (Airbus), bitter oranges and other citrus, and Seville has the largest Jewish hat factory in Europe. Over half the world’s olive oil is produced in the regions of Seville and Cordoba, exporting nearly 40% of that to Italy. Historically Seville was an important port – this was where the first New World expedition of Christopher Columbus was organized – but it was on a the relatively shallow Gaudalquivir, the second longest river entirely in Spain, not the Mediterranean Sea, so is no longer considered a port city.

We moved on to learn about how during medieval times Muslim cities were built on the same sites as the former Roman cities, using their ruins in the construction. The protective city walls and buildings of that time utilized Roman structural designs but North African building techniques (a thin layer of mortar over a base of sand, gravel and rock, rather than solid stone, but decorated on the surface to look like the sturdier stone).  A little further on we stopping to look at a large rubber tree (Ficus elasticus) that was planted in 1914 in Murillo Park, then wandered through the narrow, twisting streets crowded with tourists, souvenir shops spilling their wares out onto the stone streets, and small cafes. Jamie explained that the narrow zig-zagging streets were not a conscious design to provide shade or make it difficult for invaders to get around, but a result over time of the influence of Suuni legal system of Maliki, which allowed people to build into public spaces if their neighbors agreed. So the original regularly-spaced buildings were added onto over time in various directions until there was no more space except for the narrow passageways. He told us that all Islamic cities had the same elements: a Real Alcázar (royal palace), a market area, baths, and mosque within city walls. We continued through the labyrinth-like streets to the Real Alcázar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is the second largest and oldest alcazar in Spain, dating to the 9th century BC with walls from the 11th century BC, built on the highest point of the city near the river.

We went inside after getting our tickets at the group entrance, walking by a huge Ceiba tree in full bloom with large pink flowers on the leafless branches way up high above the bottle-shaped trunk inside the walls. Jamie told us about this palace which was built by a Christian, Peter of Castille, in the 1300s on the site which had previously been a mosque, with some of the Islamic city walls still intact. It was built by same people building the Alhambra in Islamic style (mudejar) as a private residence, not a public court, but its grandeur was intended as a statement of power. They used Roman design principles for structural integrity – such as the arches similar to those used in Roman aquaducts – but embellished with Arabic and North African elements. We went inside the elaborately decorated building, to a spare interior with walls covered in painted tiles. The entrance was an L shape, so that no one could see inside from the door, but had to walk around to get to the interior courtyard garden. This central garden was in the style of an Islamic garden intended for meditation (having free time meant status), with the layout and contents as symbols of life – water, fruit, etc. This space also included some Roman characteristics. Walls and ceilings were covered in tiles of intricate patterns in blues and greens or yellows, there were symmetrical columns and arches, horseshoe-shaped openings over entryways, and all manner of symbolic decorations adapted from Persian styles with Christian influences.

After visiting a couple of rooms inside, we went out into the Prince’s Garden, a relatively small courtyard  garden divided into quarters by boxwood hedges, and filled with shrubs of sheared rounded myrtle and cone-shaped bay laurel, palm trees and other trees all surrounded by high walls. Jaime explained that the wood from boxwood was used for cups in medieval times, and the name of the genus, Buxus, came from its use (not the other way around as for most plants). Lemon trees were introduced from Asia in the Muslim era.

We descended a staircase, walked by a tiled fountain and decorated walls amid more greenery to get to the huge walled garden filled with tall trees of many types including ginkgo, oaks, and jacarandas, as well as shorter plants including brugmansias and sago palms (Cycas revoluta). Of the 372,000 trees in the city of Seville, many came from the Americas because of the city’s exclusive connection with the New World in the early years.  We went by a huge, fat Phytolacca dioica, an elephant foot tree, which was planted by a son of Christopher Columbus 500 years ago. Nearby sat a peacock, inspiring Jamie to tell us that peacocks were introduced as a symbol of immortality because St. Augustine wrote that it was the only animal whose meat will not rot. We continued walking on the grounds of the Alcázar past various smaller structures, went by some tall old cedar trees with sagos underneath, and on through more gardens of clipped hedges, flowers and trees to go through more halls of the main buildings, past other courtyards, and into another hall now with floors of stones in decorative patterns before exiting the palace grounds.  We went through some narrow streets before walking through Murillo Gardens to our lunch spot, as Jaime pointed out bitter orange, pomegranate, and other plants as we walked.

We sat outside at some tables pushed together on the sidewalk under canopies in front of Vinerio San Telmo. Some starters to share had already been ordered ahead of time to speed up the process, but everyone ordered drinks and additional food from the menu as desired. After the water, beer and sodas were delivered, the wait staff brought out small platters of hummus and pita triangles, then a bit later two wonderful salads: mixed green, pear and blue cheese with walnut vinaigrette and arugula with sautéed tomatoes, caramelized onions and burrata cheese (similar to mozzarella). We had started on the hummus without plates, but decided we couldn’t eat the salads from communal bowls, so had to wait for them to bring plates. Some of the main dishes people had ordered included squid ink spaghetti with garlic, pesto and grilled scallops, grilled beef carpaccio rolls filled with brie and served with mango chutney and candied angel hair squash, roast beef with mustard sauce and potato purée, grilled Argentinian beef fillet with a sweet mustard sauce, crispy prawns in panko with soy mayonnaise on a bed of fried zucchini, stewed oxtail in crispy filo pastry, and a tower of layered tomato, eggplant, goat cheese and smoked salmon “au gratin”. No one was interested in dessert, but a few did have coffee. We sat and relaxed for a while until Jamie came back around 3:30 to continue the tour.

We walked across the street to get on a bus to take us to Parque Maria Luisa. We drove down the wide street, with Jaime pointing out various buildings, such as the first and largest tobacco factory which is now part of the University of Seville, and then into a section where a South American Expo had been held, where we saw the buildings representing Columbia, Morocco, Mexico and Brazil. The bus then dropped us off at one corner of the large public park that stretches along the Guadalquivir River so we could walk across the vast area, trying to stay in the shade of the many trees as much as possible (it was completely sunny and in the low 90s). The park gardens were designed by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier from a former hunting forest of one of the palaces into an expanse of gardens and grand boulevards as a “Moorish paradisical style” with a half mile of tiled fountains, pavilions, walls, ponds, benches, and plantings of palms, orange trees, Mediterranean pines, and stylized flower beds. We first stopped to look at one of the small trees with clusters of dark seed pods, Koelreuteria paniculata, with the common name of Pride of India (also used for other plants including crape myrtle) or golden rain tree. As we walked along, horse-drawn carriages kept going by taking tourists on sightseeing jaunts. This part of the park was created from a former hunting forest of one of the palaces. The buildings in the park were all designed by Seville architect Aníbal González, with the archeological museum done in new Renaissance style while the Pabellon Mudejar opposite is an example of the Moorish style used by Christians. We moved along to stand under one of the two oldest jacaranda trees in the city, given by Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and lastViceroy of India in the 1950s. Next we stopped to look at a bitter orange tree (Jaime told us this hybrid of mandarin and grapefruit can be distinguished from sweet orange by its winged petioles) and learned that there are 42,000 bitter orange trees in Seville and 24 types of citrus. We stopped periodically along our walk to learn about gingko, honey locust (seed pods used for animal forage), date palms, Canary islands palm, tall and skinny Washingtoniapalms, eucalyptus (introduced late, by Franco for a failed paper industry), London plane tree (cause of most allergies in city), oleander, and others.

Now we were at the iconic Plaza de España, also designed by González, built for the Spanish-American exhibition of 1929. This large complex is a huge half-circle with buildings all along the edge with several bridges representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain over the moat representing the Sea. The Vicente Traver fountain sits in the center of the plaza. Tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain, are set all along the curved wall around the plaza. Today the Plaza de España mainly consists of Government buildings. We moved through quickly, slowing to listen to some flamenco-playing guitarists in one spot, but had to keep moving to meet our bus on the other side of the park.

We loaded up and drove along Paseo de Cristóbol Colón, past a navigator school, Torre del Oro (a 13th century watchtower), the new opera house, the bullring, and other places. We went onto La Isla de  La Cartuja, the site of the 1992 World’s Fair held to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America expedition organized from Seville. We drove by the former monastery (where Columbus had stayed) converted to a ceramics factory, a big auditorium, the scientific museum, and over the bridge Puente de la Barqueta to the Macarena district, with the modern Puente del Alamillo bridge in the distance. Jaime explained that the Catholic church in this district has a famous Madonna, a focus of intense adoration during Holy Week. We passed by a long section of the old city wall with battlements and towers and gates, and then headed back to be dropped off to walk to our hotel about 5:30.

We had free time until a little before 8:00 so people took off to relax, wander the winding streets to do a little shopping, or enjoy the rooftop pool in the warm evening.

We met in the library again to await our guide for our Tapas Tour. When Penelope showed up we followed her outside and through the labyrinth of narrow streets to get to our first stop of the evening, Alvaro Peregil, the small restaurant of the eponymous owner who is the son of a famous opera singer. They had set up a couple of high tables on the street where we stood around. The tall, charismatic man came out to greet us, bringing a metal pitcher of vino naranja from Moguer, the small town on the coast where he is originally from and a lot of little tiny glasses. Penelope translated as his English was limited, telling us about the dark-colored, very sweet wine with a hint of orange that is aged for four years in barrels. Even those not enthusiastic about sweet wine liked this concoction (and a few of us purchased bottles for 7€ to take home). Then we went inside the narrow restaurant to watch the jamon iberico being sliced off the whole pig’s leg – and Marta and Susan even got to try their hand at slicing the meat. We then trooped back outside to enjoy the thinly sliced pork, along with large triangles of thin sliced manchego (a hard, aged sheep-milk cheese), with our wine as we listened to Penelope and Alvaro tell us about the food as well as tapas in general. Then they brought out some chicharrón de Cádiz, slow-roasted marinated pork belly and chunks of torta, a firm Spanish omelet with potatoes. We stood around on the cobblestone streets in the warm night air, as people continuously walked by, enjoying the food, drink and ambiance. Before we were to leave, Alvaro had us all follow him through the restaurant into the next street (he has service tables on both sides of the building) and down the street a couple blocks to a tiny little bar he also owns (perhaps the smallest wine bar in the city? that was unclear) so we could all cram in behind the bar of the space that was only about 8 feet by 10 feet for a group photo. Alvaro pulled down a piece of split bamboo that he worked to clack like castanets and began singing an obviously well-known Spanish song, which a few other people nearby joined in with. We trooped back to the original location where we reluctantly said our goodbyes, and then followed Penelope up the street and around the corner to the next location.

She had chosen a small restaurant El Librero Tapas, a former book store that was converted into a tapas place when the area underwent gentrification in the late 90’s (going from a unsafe part of the city to one of the main tourist areas filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, with new or remodeled buildings, but still with the footprint of the ancient Islamic city). There we were seated at a large rectangular table crammed into the small space, and were served wine, beer and/or water, then Penelope ordered four dishes for all to share: large chunks of cold marinated tuna on lettuce; pisto, a very flavorful vegetable concoction similar to ratatouille; Iberian pork cheek in red wine sauce with potatoes, and a wonderful spinach with chickpeas and a hint of cumin. We enjoyed the delicious food and good conversation, laughing heartily over quips about clothes washing while traveling. Finally it was time to move on, following Penelope back along a different route through the winding streets. At one point we smelled lady of the night, a night-blooming plant with tiny white flowers (which we couldn’t see, but knew it was nearby). We crossed one end of Murillo Park to get into the brightly lit area of restaurants just down from our hotel to go to Bolas, arte-sanos helados (artisanal ice cream). Charlene and Hannah had gone back before the ice cream shop, too full and tired to enjoy the treat. But for those who were interested in dessert, we had to choose from a variety of interesting flavors, including fresh lemon, hazelnut, several types of chocolate, dulce de leche, strachiatella, strawberry sorbet, and many others. Finally we walked the short distance to the hotel to get back around 10:45 and everyone quickly dispersed to their rooms after saying thanks and goodbye to Penelope with a traditional kiss on each cheek.

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